Published on July 18th, 2013

Do 3D Printers Challenge Semiconductor IP and Fabs?

What does a futuristic matter replicator from the ’70s have to do with today’s patent and semiconductor IP systems? The answer lies in 3D printers.

Remember the replicators from the 1970s “Star Trek” TV show? These futuristic devices could create anything from meals and engine parts to phaser handguns. Some consider today’s 3D printers to be an early version of that futuristic device. Setting aside technical considerations, the ability for almost anyone to create a 3D object raises unprecedented patent and even semiconductor intellectual-property (IP) issues. I’ll explain the IP part shortly. First, though, let’s talk about this new class of printing (manufacturing?) technology.

The printing of three-dimensional (3D) objects is moving from the domain of corporations and R&D organizations to the general public. Large companies have long used 3D printers to create physical models of future products. Thanks to cost efficiencies, many small businesses and modeling hobbyists now own 3D printing technology. Granted, it will still be many years before 3D printers – like the MakerBot – become household items (mainly due to cost and quality issues).

To fabricate a 3D object, one must start with a design file – created from scratch or drawn/traced from an image scanned in three dimensions. Several consumer-friendly software applications, such as Autodesk’s 1-2-3D, allow a novice to easily design objects using a variety of sample libraries.

Next, the 3D design is compiled into a series of 2D cross-sectional planes. A special printer then deposits layers of material – typically plastic or metal – one atop the other in the shape of each 2D plane. As the 3D object is constructed, the planes are fused and the fabricated object is treated and hardened.

What does the fairly easy and relatively inexpensive creation of 3D objects have to do with IP concerns? For now, very little. Like the early days of music file sharing via MP3 devices, the start of low-cost, consumer 3D printing hasn’t promoted a great deal of concern from the patent office. Indeed, most existing patents and registered designs allow exemptions for personal use, such as building spare parts or one-off replacements.

What happens, though, as 3D printing technology matures – as did the consumer PC market with ever-decreasing costs and increasing capabilities? There may well come a time when 3D printers are of such quality and proliferation that they impinge upon commercial manufacturers and abuse patent and IP rights. Could the major semiconductor fabs eventually surrender low-cost, low-production-volume product lines to an army of 3D printers (see RepRap)?

This idea might not be as crazy as it seems. In a manner similar to the photo-lithography used in today’s IC manufacturing, stereo-lithography – or optical fabrication – is a 3D printing technology based on ultra-violet-curable resins. Both photo- and stereo-lithography use standard patterning techniques to create a multilayered product.

Most advocates for 3D printing technology admit that the household use of such printers is a decade away. Is this true for the semiconductor IP market? Already, many R&D facilities – as well as hobbyists – have used 3D printers to create 8-bit integrated circuits. It’s not difficult to create the basic building blocks of electronics (i.e., transistors) using 3D printers configured as plotters. Organic FET recipes exist on the Internet. In addition to transistors, many other components are printable – from solar cells, batteries, and displays to passive elements like resistors and capacitors.

Still, it seems doubtful that the semiconductor IP market will face serious challenges because of the evolution of 3D printing technology. Instead, such technology will service niche markets in the low-end electronics industry (e.g., the design and manufacture of simple 8-bit circuits for disposable applications like medicine dispensers and even interactive cookie boxes; see “Organic Processors Offer Microwatt Applications“).

In the future, 3D printers may lead to fundamental changes in the manufacturing sector. What this will mean to the IP business can only be imagined.

blyler_johnJohn Blyler is the Editorial Director of Extension Media, which publishes Chip Design and Embedded Intel® Solutions magazine, plus over 36 EECatalog Resource Catalogs in vertical market areas.

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